Here to Help

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Ronald Reagan

This sentence just crossed my mind. People of a certain age may remember film actor Ronald Reagan’s quip: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help. Libertarians seem to be enamoured by this. Perhaps smug captures it better. For them, this is about the ineptness of government, that bloated bureaucracy that couldn’t get it right if it tried, and certainly not efficiently. If the government comes a knocking, view it as you do with stranger danger: Don’t get in the van with the guy with the puppy and candy. I get it. But let’s shift perspective to see how it renders from a different perspective.

Let’s start from the start with a small disclaimer. I am not an apologist for government. In fact, I am not a fan of bureaucracy. One of the more successful propaganda-slash-marketing campaign in the sphere of public opinion is that private enterprise is somehow superior in all manners to the public version. Let’s be clear here. If one is making sweeping generalisations, then start here. All bureaucracies are created equal.

Echoing Tolstoy, “Bureaucracies are all alike; every bureaucracy is unhappy in its own way.” I may have misremembered how this opening line goes. Poor Anna. Let’s keep going. Government bureaucracy is no better or worse than corporate bureaucracy. There is no correlation. For every efficient corporation—not a thing, but bear with me—there is an efficient government agency—also not a thing, so, I think you’re realising my point. Bureaucracies are practically by definition recipes for mediocrity. They are meant to produce repeatable processes at scale. They aren’t designed to be innovative or nimble, although you can buy many books and training materials on how to achieve this if you’ve got nothing better to do with your money. Let’s return to the main concept: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.

I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.

What’s the problem with this? We need to ask, why has the government shown up at our doorstep, to begin with. The answer, private markets have failed. There is a hole in the social fabric. Perhaps the private sector does provide the needed good or service, but it is clearly not affordable. Hence the hole. Clearly, the private sector has dropped the ball. So when the government attempts to intervene, the response is to cry foul. “Those people can’t afford to pay for a solution, so they shouldn’t get one. Perhaps those people should work harder or get more job training so they can afford to pay us.”

“What? Urgent medical care, you say? They should have thought ahead.”

“What’s that? She’s an infant? I suppose she should have picked different parents who thought ahead. Why do people reproduce when they can’t afford to raise a child in the first place. There ought to be a law.”

And so it goes.

Not only doesn’t the private sector not want to serve a population if it can’t profit. It’s decided that if it can’t profit from a person in a circumstance, then that person doesn’t deserve assistance. Even shoddy assistance as is suggested by the quote.

I recall another adage: something is better than nothing.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. The unstated objection is that government will provide the good or service, and it will be as good if not better than the private sector offering and it will cost less to provide. This would reveal the private sector apologists to be the charlatans they are. I am not claiming that this is some foregone conclusion. But it’s an eventuality the private sectorists don’t want exposed.

A prime example of this is the provision of healthcare and insurance. The world over provides these services cheaper and with superior health outcomes, and yet a common refrain by profit mongers is that you don’t want those other services with better health outcomes, not only provided for a lower cost, but also provided for a lower cost to you.

There is nothing inherent in this quote about the government being here to help that it is attempting to supplant some successful private sector business model.

“Why don’t we get into the yacht-building business?”

When government intervenes, it is usually due to market failure. So then why do we so often see the government trying to intervene? Availability bias aside, it’s because the market fails often, so the government has to play MacGyver time and time again. Markets are fragile. Capitalism is fragile.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics relates to entropy. Capitalism and market systems are not self-sustaining. Entropy consistently dissipates energy in these systems, hence economic busts. This isn’t even addressing the issue of misappropriation of resources from this system, which only serves to exacerbate and accelerate this natural decline. If external capital weren’t injected into this system, it would have collapsed under its own weight ages ago.

As a parting shot, it’s interesting to me that for a cohort loathing government assistance, these same blokes seem to have their hands out begging, or at least accepting, this same government assistance. The help the eschew on behalf of others is often welcomed with open arms. Where I come from, we call this hypocrisy. Hypocrisy Now. I’ve got an idea for a film.

2 thoughts on “Here to Help

  1. Not sure how this market failure thesis relates to the DMV, or probate, or toll roads, or the school system. Often the government sabotages or even forbids a private market, but I wouldn’t count that as a market failure.

    I would cite Amtrak as a case of a market that should have been allowed to fail.

    Liked by 1 person

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